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TV Lexicon: Laugh Track

By Wikipedia

A laugh track or canned laughter is a separate soundtrack with the sound of audience laughter, made to be inserted into TV comedy shows and sitcoms. The first television show to incorporate a laugh track was The Hank McCune Show.

Before television, people had always experienced comedy, whether performed live on stage, on radio, or in a movie, as part of an audience. In the early days of television, it was thought that watching recorded comedy at home alone, without hearing the laughter of other attendants, would feel odd to some viewers, and the laugh track was an attempt to reintroduce this familiar element.

From the beginning, however, laugh tracks were derided as being a "cue" for the viewing audience to laugh at the appropriate time during a TV show, as if they would not know otherwise. TV critics have often claimed that laugh tracks are used to cover up problems with the writing of a TV show, by using artificial "canned" laugh tracks to make the show seem funnier than it actually is. This has led some to change the common phrase "taped in front of a live studio audience" into "live in front of a taped studio audience." Some viewers regard the laugh track as an insult to their intelligence and sense of humor. ABC, among other television networks, were notorious for overusing the laugh track, which was parodied on The Rerun Show's adaptation of a Bewitched script. In the 1970s, the laugh tracks used on shows like Eight is Enough and The Love Boat were looser and much lighter, and these have become the standard on many shows today.

Laugh tracks have even been used in some traditionally animated television series, such as The Flintstones and Scooby-Doo, where common sense would tell the viewer that a live audience would be impossible, unless the audience were watching the cartoon being played back.

When a show is taped in front of a live audience, the term "sweetening" describes the addition of recorded laughter or manipulation of the sound level of the live laughter to "punch up" the effect.

Several TV comedy series have aired completely without laugh tracks, but in the United States these shows have been relatively few and far between. The most successful current U.S. TV comedy show to air completely without a laugh track or "live" audience laughter is The Simpsons, an animated series (although the show has been known to parody canned laughter on occasion). Laugh track-free production has been gaining ground in the U.S., especially in more avant-garde, critically-acclaimed situation comedies and dramedies including Scrubs, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Malcolm in the Middle, Andy Richter Controls the Universe and Arrested Development. Such shows are often produced in the more expensive "drama style," using on-location shooting and high production values, as opposed to the standard multi-camera sitcom sound stage.

Larry Gelbart, creator of the TV series M*A*S*H, has said that he initially wanted the show to air entirely without a laugh track, but this idea was rejected by the CBS TV network. Eventually a compromise was reached, and the laugh track was omitted from all operating room scenes on the show. Some syndicated and international versions omitted the laugh track completely, and the DVD release gives the viewer a choice of laughing or non-laughing soundtracks.

In Britain most sitcoms (aka "Britcoms") are taped before live audiences to provide natural laughter. Some shows do omit laugh tracks altogether, notably Absolute Power and The Office. The League of Gentlemen was originally broadcast with a laugh track, but after the first two series this was dropped, probably at the insistence of its cast/creators.

Laugh track-free production has been the norm among Canada's contemporary sitcoms.

One interesting sidenote about the laugh track is that there is at least one video game to have used one. Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon, for the Nintendo 64, used a laugh track in certain dialog sequences in the game. This of course is even more surreal than hearing a laugh track in a cartoon, since a live audience cannot possibly exist in the case of a game.

 

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This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
It uses material from this Wikipedia article, which is probably more up to date than ours (retrieved August 12, 2005).

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